A simple electrical model for living cells predicts an increasing probability for electric field interactions with intracellular substructures of both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells when the electric pulse duration is reduced into the sub-microsecond range. The validity of this hypothesis was verified experimentally by applying electrical pulses (durations 100 micros-60 ns, electric field intensities 3-150 kV/cm) to Jurkat cells suspended in physiologic buffer containing propidium iodide. Effects on Jurkat cells were assessed by means of temporally resolved fluorescence and light microscopy. For the longest applied pulses, immediate uptake of propidium iodide occurred consistent with electroporation as the cause of increased surface membrane permeability. For nanosecond pulses, more delayed propidium iodide uptake occurred with significantly later uptake of propidium iodide occurring after 60 ns pulses compared to 300 ns pulses. Cellular swelling occurred rapidly following 300 ns pulses, but was minimal following 60 ns pulses. These data indicate that submicrosecond pulses achieve temporally distinct effects on living cells compared to microsecond pulses. The longer pulses result in rapid permeability changes in the surface membrane that are relatively homogeneous across the cell population, consistent with electroporation, while shorter pulses cause surface membrane permeability changes that are temporally delayed and heterogeneous in their magnitude.